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A world of superstition: What’s lucky or unlucky depends on where you’re from

Top, from left: Prakash Gurung, a senior, is originally from Nepal; Iraguha Yvette, a junior, is originally from Tanzania; Pacifique Sibomana, a sophomore, is originally from Congo. Bottom, from left: Roshika Nepal, a sophomore, was born in Nepal. Her parents came from Bhutan; Joyce Showers, a senior, is originally from Sierra Leone; Zak Muhudin, a sophomore, is originally from Somalia. All are students at Fargo South High School. Photos by Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

FARGO — Today is Friday the 13th.

Lucky us!

A world of black cats crossing roads, ladders to walk under, and mirrors to break awaits outside your door, unless you've already called in sick to burrow under the bedcovers to avoid any misfortune.

To be sure, we're a superstitious lot.

Just as anyone who wears a "rally cap" at a baseball game, picks up lucky pennies, avoids cracks on sidewalks, or tacks up a horseshoe over their door.

But westerners are not alone! (Knock on wood.)

There's a wider world out there with different perspectives on what's lucky or unlucky.

Adding spice to the area's mix of superstitions, some students in Fargo South High's English language classes shared a few favorites with The Forum.

In Congo, if "your mom is cooking and you eat what's on the spoon, when you grow up you can't get a wife," sophomore Pacifique Sibomana said.

And even the smallest creatures can help.

"If you do something wrong — if you walk and you see an ant on the ground, no one else will know what you did," Sibomana said.

In Somalia, it's thought that "if you say something bad about someone older than you, you might die," sophomore Zak Muhudin said.

In Nepal, "if you cut your nails at night, you'll have bad dreams," senior Prakash Gurung said. Nor should you whistle in the house, he said. And "you can't put your hand (flat) on the floor while you're eating."

"You can't lick a ladle, or it will ruin your wedding day," added Roshika Nepal, a sophomore who was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. And "you can't count your rice."

If you've ever had the itch to slap someone, Nepal may be the place to take that person.

"If your hand is itching, you get to slap people," Gurung said.

Purse placement is important to money management for some in Sierra Leone, says senior Joyce Showers.

"If you put your purse (on the floor), you will be broke. You won't have money," Showers said.

And spitting has extra importance.

"If you spit a lot, you are pregnant," Showers said.

But Iraguha Yvette, a junior from Tanzania, says a superstition (or is it a warning?) reminds us that our actions can determine our luck.

"If you go fast (or rush me), it doesn't bring you good luck," Yvette said.

Say that again

Fear of the number 13 is called triskaidekaphobia, from Greek meaning the fear of three and 10.

But the more common fear/superstition is that of a Friday that falls on the 13th. That is called paraskevidekatriaphobia. The term was coined in the early 1990s by Dr. Donald E. Dossey, an American psychotherapist.

The western world's idea of bad luck on the 13th may have a couple of origins.

At the Last Supper of Jesus, Christians believe Jesus was joined by his Twelve Apostles. Judas arrived last at the table, bringing the group to 13. Judas later betrayed Jesus.

Jesus was also believed by most Christians to have died on a Friday.

Norsemen also found 13 unlucky.

Dossey, who is also the author of "Holiday Folklore, Phobias and Fun," says a Norse myth tells of 12 gods having a dinner party in Valhalla, when a 13th uninvited guest, Loki, walks in. Loki then arranges for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Balder dies, and the Earth darkens and all mourn.

Superstitious much?

According to a 1996 Gallup poll, 25 percent of Americans polled said they were very (1 percent) or somewhat (24 percent) superstitious. That was up from a 1990 poll that had 18 percent of Americans polled saying they were superstitious. Still, in 1996, 28 percent polled said they were "not very" superstitious, though 47 percent said they weren't superstitious at all.

Of those polled, 13 percent worried that a black cat crossing their path would be bad luck, 12 percent thought walking under a ladder might be a bad idea, while 27 percent believed knocking on wood prevented bad luck.

A 2014 Harris poll found fewer people, 21 percent of those polled, believed in knocking on wood for luck, though more people, 20 percent, thought walking under a ladder could bring bad luck. Thirty-three percent of those polled believed picking up a penny is good luck, and 24 percent said it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before their wedding.

We need a cause

Why do we hang onto superstitions?

Because humans associate events whether or not they actually have a causal relationship, says Mark Covey, a social psychologist and teacher at Concordia College in Moorhead.

"My favorite example is whenever someone sells a winning lottery ticket, that store gets inundated with lottery traffic, even though it's illogical to think that store is lucky," Covey said.

Superstitions offer comfort. They are a mechanism used to place control over randomness.

That's not all bad. Harboring a superstition has at its roots self-preservation.

Among our forebears, those who didn't learn to connect A to B might not survive to pass on their genes. So as people evolved, we became "especially attuned to finding causality, even when it doesn't exist," Covey said.

Which can lead to odd conclusions.

"There are no reasons why 13 is any more unlucky than 12 or 14," Covey said. "I'm sure everyone has a story of misfortune on Friday the 13th. We're just taught to look for it."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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